For the first time in this country’s history, American church membership has dipped below 50%. Gallup attributes this trend to decreasing religious affiliation and generational differences. According to NYU professor Michael Hout, Millennials are less likely to accept obedience, and they have trust issues with institutions.
Yet, there seems to be a growing number of people -- especially younger generations -- who want something spiritual, but aren’t looking for the commitment of religion itself.
I can relate. Baptized Catholic, I struggled with the traditions and rules. There was a disconnect between my beliefs and values and what was taught by the Catholic Church, and I vowed to never be a part of organized religion again. The experience left me feeling jaded about any institution with a prescribed way of how to be a good human.
It took me a while to fully commit to Shin Buddhism, especially when it came to embracing the rituals. Putting my hands together in gassho, bowing, and chanting all triggered the resentment I harbored for religion. I didn’t like being told what to do or what to blindly believe and accept, particularly when it seemed like I could just be a good person and find happiness on my own.
I would later realize that being a good person and the pursuit of happiness is a lot harder than we think. You can have the best of intentions and try very hard to stay the course, but each day the universe leads us astray with its never-ending complications. We grapple with our flawed human reactions. Trying to reign in our foolishness feels like standing in the water at the beach, thinking you can stay in front of where you left your towel in the sand, only to realize you’ve drifted far away from your belongings, somehow pulled in a direction you didn’t intend to go.
This is why I like to go to Wednesday meditation now; I’m more likely to meditate if it’s in my calendar and when I can do it with other people. That’s also how I became a Sunday service regular. I liked seeing the people, hearing their voices as they chanted the Juseige, smelling the incense, and being a part of something that was bigger than my world. There is something about the sacred that invites our dedication. Also, we thrive in communities when there is connection, where we can learn from each other, inspire each other, hold each other accountable while also holding each other up against the many challenges in life. This is what being a part of a Sangha can do for us. When we become a member, we make a commitment to planting our roots in a place that will nourish all of us. When we reach a point of knowing that this is the place for us, membership makes our spirituality sustainable through our investment in it.
It’s not enough to want spirituality. You need a practice, and that develops within structure. In the book Shin Buddhism: Bits of Rubble Turn into Gold by the late Reverend Taitetsu Unno, he references an American historian of religion who said we need both religion and spirituality. Spirituality gives religion vigor, but religion provides the structure and form. It’s not one or the other, it has to be both. Unno wrote that we have an “irrational, unconscious self” that can be channeled creatively by rituals. He said, “We thus yearn to become connected to something enduring and consistent.” Humans like stability; we are creatures of habit. Predictability gives us comfort. For Shin Buddhists, sutra chanting is an important ritual. This is what binds us to a practice that leads us to the spirituality we yearn for.
There is a terrific podcast interview that Jay Shetty did with Kobe Bryant. It is loaded with so many gems, but there is a moment mid-way when they talk about the importance of having structure as a creative. Creatives don’t work just when inspiration hits. They have a routine-- a place to show up to on a regular basis, rituals they embrace. Ultimately their work comes from this consistency. Half the battle is just showing up. Kobe remarked that “without structure, we’d be aimless.” If you still aren’t convinced about the necessity of structure and consistency, there is a great book called Daily Rituals by Mason Currey, and you’ll discover that almost all of your favorite artists had structure in their artistic routines.
Buddhism is meant to be experienced. I know some of us may still carry around the scars of our former religious lives, where we were told to believe without question and felt coerced and manipulated by doctrine. Not the case for Buddhism. Try it out. We have to do something before we know if it works or not. The only way for me to dig my way out of writer’s block is to write, even when I don’t feel like it. Sitting around and waiting for inspiration doesn’t help me reach my goals. That was ultimately how I had to embrace Buddhism. I had to show up to become consistently spiritual. I had to partake in the rituals I was initially averse to, and that was how I eventually knew that this time-- and this place-- was a good fit for me. In the end it wasn’t merely a logical conclusion to give membership another chance, but rather a feeling I experienced every Sunday when I showed up at temple.
Rennyo Shonin said, “Listen to the Buddhist teaching, even if you must take time out from your daily business. To believe that you will listen when you have some spare time is shallow thinking. There is no tomorrow in listening to the teaching.”